Raw Meat aka Deathline
An unexpected music score -- a throbbing and unsettling bump-and-grind strip-club selection - opens the film as a bowler-hat-wearing "gentleman" is frequenting a neon-soaked corner of the Soho district of London. This example of the upper crust (James Cossins) exits a club and heads for the Russell Square Station of the London Underground - the Tube. He propositions a lone woman on the platform and is kneed in the crotch for his crude remarks. Now alone on the platform, the man is approached by something more sinister. Later, two students - American Alex Campbell (David Ladd, son of matinee idol Alan Ladd) and Londoner Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney) - exit the train and see the man slumped on the steps. Alex does not want to get involved ("In New York you walk over these guys"), while Patricia is more compassionate ("He might be a diabetic - see if there's a card in his wallet"). The couple discovers that the victim is James Manfred, OBE; they fetch a policeman, but when they return to the steps, Manfred is gone. This disappearance triggers a high-level investigation by the working-class Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence), assisted by Detective Sergeant Rogers (Norman Rossington). An analysis of the history of the tube station sheds little light on any possible culprits in the recent murders and disappearances. When this particular section of the tube system was being built in 1892, a cave-in trapped eight men and four women in a cavernous area where a railway was being laid. Rather than launch a rescue attempt, the railway company wrote off the victims for dead. In fact, some survived - on rats and tunnel victims, no doubt - and bred a few generations worth of hidden underground dwellers. There are only two survivors left, the "Man" (Hugh Armstrong) who tends to his dying, pregnant mate (June Turner).
Though a British film, Raw Meat was the feature debut of American director Gary Sherman, who began his career making shorts, commercials, and TV Specials in his native Chicago. Raw Meat is confident and accomplished; the story is Sherman's and he manages two linked, complementary storylines, each very different in tone. Above ground, British class differences are played out and satirized through the sardonic words and actions of Inspector Calhoun, while in the underground the struggle is for survival, as base emotions and instincts are tested and played out in their most raw state.
In one amazing dialogue-free shot, clocking in at over seven minutes, the viewer is shown the fate of the missing man in the tube station as well as the dire circumstances of the Underground dwellers. The shot, accomplished with a constantly moving camera, is the sort of audacious undertaking that an ambitious first-time director might be expected to attempt, but it is entirely successful in establishing mood as well as displaying - in the most compact but graphic way - the accumulated handiwork of eighty years worth of ghoulish desperation and cannibalistic depravity. Accompanying the almost unimaginable imagery is a soundtrack of dripping liquids, disembodied heartbeats, moaning, and an aural flashback to the horrible cave-in that trapped the original wretches. Interestingly, the British studio Amicus had recently produced two adaptations of the notorious American EC horror comic books of the 1950s, in the anthologies Tales from the Crypt (1972) and The Vault of Horror (1973). While those films captured the tongue-in-cheek humor of the original stories, it was Raw Meat that more effectively brings to life the quintessential EC yarns drawn by "Ghastly" Graham Ingels, peopled by pathetic ghouls and unspeakable scenes of putrescence, disease, and festering decay.
The tone of Raw Meat, like the plot, effortlessly shifts from the gruesome to the arch, thanks in large part to a wonderful performance by Donald Pleasence as Inspector Calhoun. The veteran actor takes what could have been a stock character and presents a fully rounded, spirited - though somewhat reluctant - working-class official. Highly intelligent, Calhoun is cynical and sardonic but shows himself to be a creature of habit, demanding his tea at the proper times. In thorough contrast to the horrors of existence that the "Man" suffers in the tube station, Calhoun grouses at the extreme inconvenience of having his beverage made with teabags and makes a point to stab the bag with a dart and plop it with disdain on the floor. One stark scene becomes a battle of wills between Calhoun and Stratton-Villiers, a stuffy upper-class MI5 Agent played in an amusing cameo by a strident and stiff-as-a-board Christopher Lee.
In a lengthy review of Raw Meat that appeared in the Village Voice, Robin Wood has high praise for the film, saying it "...vies with Night of the Living Dead (1968) for the most horrible horror film ever. It is, I think, decidedly the better film: more powerfully structured, more complex, and more humanly involved. Its horrors are not gratuitous; it is an essential part of its achievement to create, in the underground world, the most terrible conditions in which human life can continue to exist and remain recognizably human." Wood observes that the structure of the film "...is strong without being schematic; one can't talk of allegory in the strict sense, but the action consistently carries resonances beyond its literal meaning." Wood sees several intentional parallels between the Underworld and the "Over-world"; for example, "the desperate, totally committed need of the underground cannibal for his dying wife is set against the casualness of the young American student, who can manage little beyond a shrug when his girl, Pat, walks out on him." Wood acknowledges that Ladd's performance is "ineffectual," but for him that doesn't unduly damage the film: "...The point lies partly in the superficiality of the 'surface' characters, as against the intense desires and needs of their Underworld counterparts." Wood also notes that the structure of the film is given even greater complexity "...by the introduction of a third term of comparison, Inspector Calhoun. Against the coolness of the student and the desperation of the cannibal is set his tough resilience, the sarcasm, invective, and cynicism that are his protection against loss and aloneness..."
Reviewing Raw Meat for the genre magazine Cinefantastique (Vol. 3, Number 2), Reynold Humphries calls Raw Meat "a fine and noble film" and "...one of the most intelligent contributions to the genre in recent years, with a complexity of inter-relating ideas that one finds only in the best works." Humphries makes note of the film's emphasis on caste politics, as well as the attitudes toward violence. "Whereas the indifference of the American stems from being conditioned to violence in New York, that of the British ruling class is due to the arrogance of an imposed class superiority. The Establishment is shown to be split on class lines and only the young people come out of it well..."
For the American release, distributor American International not only slapped the film with a more exploitative title, they sidestepped any hint of gruesomeness or satire. Instead, their publicity artwork featured wild misrepresentation in the form of shapely blonde zombies with pink shrouds falling off their shoulders. The tagline shown on the posters read: "Beneath modern London - buried alive in its plague-ridden tunnels lives a tribe of once humans. Neither men nor women, they are less than animals...they are the raw meat of the human race!" Director Sherman went on to direct the quirky Dead & Buried (1981) and the big-budget studio sequel Poltergeist III (1988), but has mostly worked in television since 1990.
Producer: Paul Maslansky
Director: Gary Sherman
Screenplay: Ceri Jones (screenplay); Gary Sherman (original story)
Cinematography: Alex Thomson
Art Direction: Dennis Gordon-Orr
Music: Wil Malone, Jeremy Rose
Film Editing: Geoffrey Foot
Cast: Donald Pleasence (Inspector Calhoun), Norman Rossington (Detective Sergeant Rogers), David Ladd (Alex Campbell), Sharon Gurney (Patricia Wilson), Hugh Armstrong (The 'Man'), June Turner (The 'Woman'), Clive Swift (Inspector Richardson), James Cossins (James Manfred, OBE), Heather Stoney (W.P.C. Alice Marshall), Hugh Dickson (Dr. Bacon)
by John M. Miller